Sounding Board: Beyond the sale

Too often, supermarket executives think the relationship ends when the customer exits the checkout. A look at the Best Buy model could change some minds.

By Len Lewis

I‘m sitting in a trendy loft in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood noshing on mini-pastries, fresh fruit and cappuccino while listening to top executives of Best Buy offering an optimistic holiday outlook when one of them says: “When the sale ends…the relationship begins.”

I was so struck by this comment that I almost stopped eating. After all, it’s the polar opposite of the old time-worn Mad Men approach to sales and marketing in which you build a relationship first, then close the deal.

But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes for any people-facing business. The trick is to apply it to supermarkets, which on the whole, are all about making the sale as quickly as possible and not worrying too much about what happens afterward.

Please, hold the hate mail until I’m finished. Of course, there are retailers out there who walk the talk about building long-term relationships and creating the customer experience that gets people to stay longer and shop more. But is there more to it?

Best Buy, a survivor of the great electronics store wars, has a business model that goes beyond the sale of flat screen TVs, Blu-Ray players, e-readers and smartphones. It’s about support after the purchase is made—online, in-store and through its 20,000- strong “Geek Squad” that will connect and network anything you buy and make sure you stay connected.

They also focus on getting people to understand what these devices can do and getting them back in the store to make more high ticket purchases. This is particularly important for a retailer dealing with a new wave of consumer technology every 12 months. In this respect, the grocery industry seems like a cakewalk (no pun intended). Game changers in food just don’t come around that often. But let’s examine the situation more closely.

For this column and elsewhere I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of people about the customer experience—what it means, what it should be and how to achieve Nirvana. What I’ve learned is that there is no single answer, just as there is no single consumer. But perhaps we can expand the parameters of customer experience to include, as Best Buy executives might put it, “before, during and after the sale.”

A recent study by the NPD Group found that 94% of households make a shopping list before going to the store and nearly three-quarters of them stick to it. This makes it imperative to build the pre-shopping relationship through a more effective multimedia approach that includes highly targeted circulars, email blasts, social networking and smartphone messaging for regular customers with this week’s hot promotions, recipe suggestions or just a good old fashioned commercial. The latter may be one of the most effective ways to take advantage of what’s been called the “mobile tsunami.”

Once customers are in the store, we need to create environments that keep them there longer. Best Buy is doing it by expanding and revamping some departments and contracting others. They’re also adding 29,000 seasonal workers, or  “Blue Shirts.” If you ask them a question, they are trained to say, “I’ll find out,” never “I don’t know.” The latter might sound familiar to those of you are used to employees who hide and text instead of engage and assist.

Of course, the in-store environment is another issue for which there is no single solution. But it’s not just about refreshing the store with a new paint job, a new floor and some updated graphics over the meat department. As someone told me recently, it’s a matter of creating zones or vignettes within the store that enable people to relax, indulge and browse. The bottom line—merchandising!

There are lots of examples. Not surprisingly, some of the best come from Wegmans, which is experimenting with pubs in several stores that offer wine, beer and cocktails. In addition to relaxing with a drink, customers can watch dinner being prepared and ask chefs questions about items they can prepare at home.

On the other end of the customer experience—literally—is the checkout, which customers say is right up there with waiting on line at the DMV or the post office. Are there new approaches that can foster efficiency and speed without making customers feel like they are being kicked to the curb.

The “after” part may be the supermarket’s biggest challenge. Could there be a supermarket equivalent of the “Geek Squad”? Bring the pastries and cappuccino and let’s talk.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at or at

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